by Ken McAlpine
I was thinking of Huell Howser the other day. It can’t be helped. The man is still everywhere. As the host of “California’s Gold,” he was larger than life. Now he is larger than death.
But this is only partly about Huell. This is mostly about the State we call home. How very lucky we are. Huell knew this. It’s why he shouted it. It’s why he repeated it. Huell Howser wrote a love letter to California, pure, simple and without apology. It could be no other way. He took to California’s roads (and off roads), and they ran off with him. California stuns, bewitches, seduces, makes your heart race, your breath quicken, your soul soar. Gaze out over the Yosemite Valley after a summer twilight rainstorm — waterfall tongues plummeting from heaven, fog wraiths wafting from the pines, the day’s last fairy light falling full on the sheer face of Half Dome — and you will experience all of this at once.
Huell Howser felt these things. I say this having met the affable television host only once. But I am certain of it.
Yosemite, Death Valley, Hearst Castle, Morro Bay, Santa Barbara, Joshua Tree, Mount Whitney, Mammoth Mountain, Mono Lake, Bodie, the northern redwood forests, Gold Country, Mount Lassen, Fall River, Shasta Lake, Mendocino, San Francisco, San Diego, Los Angeles and, yes, Ventura. Even this tip of the iceberg assemblage looks like it was assembled by a pathological liar of a travel agent on serious amphetamines. In any other state, one of these places would be an iconic draw. We have dozens of them. And this neglects the equally magical subtleties.
Huell knew these iconic places and, equally important, hundreds of the crannies betwixt and between. Ventura fits this cranny category. This is not a slight. This is what makes us special. Huell came to Ventura to do a show on Art City, a sculptors’ haven as lovely and hidden as a fairy ring. He charged between painstakingly carved art works, no doubt giving a sculptor or two the willies, excitedly thrusting his microphone into faces, bobbing his head agreeably, spouting his signature That’s amaaaaaaazing!
He was right about Art City. He was right about California.
Huell was supremely talented, no doubt, with the ability to make a French dip sandwich look like the Second Coming. The body of work he created is exceptional. But the honest truth is, without California, Huell Howser probably would likely have been just another reporter prattling on about Elvis sightings or a free giveaway at the Jack Daniels plant (quite possibly related stories) in his home state of Tennessee. But Huell came to California, and California ladled its largesse — the spectacularly iconic and the spectacularly unknown — into Huell’s eager hands.
Huell knew the magic. If states are poems, California is the Iliad. The moon, swollen and full, rising above a purpling desert, oddly crooked Joshua trees bent in respectful silence. The Alabama Hills at high noon, phantasmagoric rocks the size of tractor trailer trucks jumbled upon each other as if a giant lost interest in some great domino game. A Fall River fishing lodge, where old clocks tick loudly and nighttime yarns are spun slow as the golden trout brought to the surface that morning (or maybe not, depending on who is doing the lying). Country cafes, anywhere beyond the cities, where suspendered old timers wait on off kilter wood floors for a slice of Make Yo’ Mama Cry pecan pie, and outside working trucks rumble past brick mercantiles with star spangled banners luffing in the breeze. Gold Country, its lovely road ribbons running beside quiet oaks and scrolling barbed wire fences with flower pots hanging on the posts for no reason other than the loveliness of flowers. The redwood forests, ferns the size of children overseen by stoic redwood parents and timeless hush. High Sierra meadows running with the wind. A hot spring somewhere in Mammoth (hint, look for the stand alone church), lava-warmed and ideally suited for contemplating cloud shapes drifting above the ends of your toes.
Ventura, waves rising off an empty beach at dusk, their looping crests leaving wispy horse mane trails in the air.
I scratch these last notes in precisely the spot I am describing. In the waning light, the ocean assumes a bruised blue. In the distance, the looming bulk of Santa Cruz Island is precisely the same color. There is no place I’d rather be than here in salt-laced, downy-soft nightfall. There aren’t words for this sort of happiness.
It is like falling in love.
As I said, I only met Huell once. Assigned to write a long ago story about him for an airline magazine, I tailed Huell and his boisterously sweating cameraman as the two of them charged about Mono Lake. Huell was genuine, affable and as hard working as any man I’ve seen. Only it didn’t look like work to me. He was only just beginning to discover California’s gold, but I could already see the joy in his face.
One dawn, before the camera started rolling, we stood together quietly as dawn touched the tops of Mono Lake’s drip castle tufa spires. Huell crouched and stuck his finger in the lake, so I did too. As dawn graced the water, the two of us watched tiny brine shrimp spin like lovely dust motes about our fingers.
You can guess what Huell said.
And he was right.